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The Transformation of a Royal Palace

Chapter 6: Interiors and Exhibition design


Darkness and light


In Asia the gods dwell in darkness, in the smoky, innermost shrine of the temple, surrounded in stillness by a few butter or oil lamps. Only rarely do they leave this abode: then, however, the gods are bathed with water and light and are carried around through their cities in festive processions. Until again they return to the darkness of their sanctuaries.

Shall we treat these sculptures of bronze as deities which after all they still are, or as art objects and exhibits? Shall one leave them in the darkness of a deep alcove, with traces of blood sacrifice and vermilion on them, the golden patina only sparsely lit, or shall one expose them to bright daylight and its equivalent of cold Halogen or Neon illumination? Profane them, once and forever, to become objects in the history of religions or otherwise treasures of art?

Can we, to paraphrase Joseph Beuys, forego their charm which goes beyond beauty? Would not a humane museum concept almost demand that the gods of an ancient culture be left, as far as possible, in their context and not be divested of darkness, their most common shroud ?

Götz Hagmüller: "Wenn das Licht ausgeht in Kathmandu" (When the lights go off in Kathmandu), Wien 1991

Appropriate Exhibition Technology at the Patan Museum

Above all with regard to maintenance and equipment which are available locally – there was no high-tech to start with. Other future repairs, the technical equipment used had to be compatible with the skills, materials and constraints also necessitated some compromises after a careful consideration of the pros and cons involved. In the absence of any patent recipes in such a situation, the endeavour to adapt to local conditions and available skills was a particular challenge.

For the museum’s abundant information display, the graphic design and production of more than 200 object labels and some two dozen gallery texts could make good use of the rapidly developing computer and print technology in Nepal.

The humid climate, and the high amount of dust and pollution in the air of the Kathmandu Valley are fundamental problems for a museum, particularly in a historical building which does not allow comprehensive glazing of its windows, and precludes an air-conditioning system. The necessary protection of exhibits has therefore been almost completely confined to the showcases – apart from a number of large, free-standing objects. The showcases are made of simple steel sections, welded and screwed together, with the glazing and sealing made as airtight as possible. The objects are protected against the heat from the light compartment above by sandwich panels of glass. Showcase doors have been avoided in all those showcases which are not built into walls, in order to avoid problems of locking and air-tightness, which makes their contents only accessible by removing the entire glazed box frame from the case bottom. This solution involves a concession to the fact that the frequent high humidity is reduced only during admission hours, and then only slightly (by heat radiation from the light compartment) and cannot be regulated by humidity equalizers (e.g. silica gel), which would require frequent access, as well as an unrealistic high level of competence and control. However, the light compartments can be easily opened for inspection and maintenance and are also well-ventilated, in order not to reduce the lifespan of their lamps through excessive heat.

The tempting array of modern light fixtures on the international market has also been dispensed with, in particular low-voltage technology: not only for reasons of maintenance and supply, but also because project experimentation has proved that the normal incandescent light of the reflector bulb (which is available in Nepal) provides the best illumination for sculptures anyway, especially for those made of bronze or gilt copper. This light is neither as sharp as that of 12-volt-halogen bulbs, nor as diffuse and unreflective as that of fluorescent tube  lights.

In some cases, mirrors are inserted into the bottom of the showcase to reflect the light from above and thus provide additional contour lighting for the exhibits from below – a minor reference to the original method of lighting, which placed oil lamps on the floors of the shrines.

Gallery G :   Deep bay windows on the second floor provide sitting comfort and views of the square below. The original mud floors have been replaced by handmade  terracotta tiles.

Gallery entrance, first floor:    The carved wooden door was salvaged from the demolition of an old house. The triangular loopholes are for the passage of spirits who avoid thresholds in their flight path.

Gallery G:  The photograph was taken before the Museum’s section on traditional metal technology was fully installed. The bay windows on the left provide a view of  the Northern part of Patan Darbar Square.


Gallery D:    Looking through into Gallery E. Stone sculptures of the Vedic Gods Chandra and Surya on the left, and of tantric deities of Nepal in the hanging show cases.

West-wing gallery on top floor:    The gallery overlooks Darbar Square. It is used for meetings and lectures, and for banquets on special occasions.

View from the South tower pavilion over Darbar Square:    The bell was rung during rituals invoking the gods in times of severe drought. Krishna Mandir in the right background.

Top Right: Perspective drawing of early design by Roland Hagmuller

Top Left: The southern part of gallery E, with a triangular alcove protruding through gable wall

East wing, First Floor, Gallery E

A triangular hole under the ridge of the gable wall allows a ray of sun light to enter during noon hours, apart from providing the traditional exit for volatile spirits.

The crossing of two invisible lines (defined by the axis of alcoves and doors as dominant features) suggests the main route of visitor circulation where it turns between the East- and the South-wing.

The Colour Scheme:  monochrome

In 1887 Max Müller, the German Sanskrit scholar and editor of The Sacred Books of the East, noted that our ancestors of 2,000 years ago were more or less colour-blind – as most animals are. Xenophon was aware of only three colours in the rainbow (purple, red and yellow) and Democritus of only four (black, white, red and yellow). Even Aristotle spoke of the three-coloured rainbow and for Homer the sea evidently had the same colour as wine.

One could presumably make a similar claim for rural Nepal, as also for many of the traditional societies in the Third World: many differences, nuances and blends of colour are not even perceived and therefore not designated by words. Colour is a luxury. A few colours do indeed have their own exactly defined symbolic values in painting and ritual, but they are neither artistic nor individual means of expression as such. Most people's clothing in non-urban Nepal tends to be 'earth-brown' – the same colour as the architecture. The women also use red, especially at festivals, and red is also the colour of the flag aprons on the eaves of the pagoda roofs. In everyday life, however, the colours that predominate are those of rust or dust, of earth and terracotta, of untreated wood and natural yarn.

In only a few historical buildings are there coloured interior rooms. An even rarer sight are coloured wooden elements which are visible from outside, as in the case of the Golden Window of the Patan Darbar 100 years ago, which Gustave Le Bon documented in some detail and published in the form of a coloured engraving. However, since the date of the paintwork is unknown and its authentication as dating from the early 18th century is doubtful, there has so far been no attempt to reconstruct what can in any case hardly be ascertained from the scarce traces of paint which remain.

Even if it might seem as if the above assumption of colour-blindness in traditional Nepal is a justification of the monochrome use of colour in the Patan Museum, the choice of colours did in fact arise almost naturally. Building components such as brick, terracotta and wood were already there, as were a couple of whitewashed elements. Yet the inner walls were deliberately not painted the traditional white but a brick colour – on the one hand for perceptual reasons, to reduce the differences of brightness in the surrounding areas (to the advantage of the illuminated museum exhibits), on the other hand for the practical reason that the underlying plaster, which consisted of brick dust and lime mortar, had this colour anyway, so that the inevitable damage caused by the wear and tear of the paint would then not be too conspicuous.

The choice of colour for the frames of the showcases and for all new, visible construction and furnishing elements which were made of steel had a similarly practical background. The dark rust-brown colour is the same tone as the usual rust-protection coat, which can be obtained in every paint shop in Nepal and which would therefore not have to be specially mixed when used for redecorating in the future (the satin surface was obtained by adding boiled linseed oil).

Consequently, the colours used for the insides of the showcases, as well as for the information boards which present pictures and texts, were simply a logical consequence of the foregoing: their matte brick-red, sepia or sandy tones produce the most pleasant colour scheme for the majority of the exhibits, the smooth and reflective surfaces of which are usually made of bronze or copper and in many cases are also gilded.

To bring the circle to a close, even the museum's textiles and the traditional clothing of the gallery attendants have been included in this monochrome scheme.

East wing, First Floor, Gallery A

This gallery is the first one the visitor enters. It provides an introduction to the exhibits and explains how to recognize the various Hindu and Buddhist deities or ritual objects by their particular features.

One showcase and two separate stone reliefs in this gallery display miscellaneous aspects of iconography and include objects which cannot be identified: e.g. the faceless image of the repoussé shrine in the center would only be recognized by the family who had dedicated this object to their personal deity in 1855.

Design for showcase no. 4

South wing, second floor Gallery D
To maximize a sense of space in the long and narrow galleries, freestanding exhibitions were kept to a minimum and showcases were suspended from the ceilings.

Design of show case interiors

Although most showcases are standardized to some extent with regard to measurements and technical details, each case has a different interior form, individually designed for its particular group of exhibits.

Within its group, each object again has been given a particular space, either in a niche receding from the slanting main plane or on a pedestal protruding from it. Thus, each exhibit has its own “spatial aura” in distinction from its neighbors, and each group is gathered in a homogenous setting.

Manuscript of Tantric Hinduism (detail); Bhaktapur, Nepal, 17th-18th century, handmade paper, ink, watercolors, Object 772

In some cases, mirrors are inserted into the bottom of the showcase to reflect the light from above and thus provide additional contour lighting for the exhibits from below – a minor reference to the original method of lighting, which placed oil lamps on the floors of the shrines.

The design for this individual showcase takes into account the unusual dimensions of the exhibit: a continuous illustration spreading over 21 folios of a leparello-type manuscript measuring 20 cm in width and two meters in length.

It would have been logical to display the manuscript vertically in order to keep upright both the script and the image (a schematic human figure with all chakras depicted above each other along the spine), but that would have meant forgoing the possibility of seeing and reading each folio easily and at close range.

Thus the manuscript is laid out horizontally, as it would have been on the floor or a table. The 60 degree angle of the glass sides of the case and the two horizontal hand-bars invite one to lean a bit over the exhibit for a closer view.

Wall niches
Traditional wall niches of the Malla period were replicated with precast concrete elements set in the mud-mortar masonry walls and housing concealed lighting.

Although this particular shape of niche shows late influence from Mughal India, its archetype is also found in the earliest flowering of Nepalese art, the Licchavi period (4th-7th c.).

North wing, second floor Gallery G, technology section
The niche above one of the typical latticed windows was converted into a showcase with a glazed steel frame in front and a hidden light box above. The case exhibits a pair of gilded bronze hands, cast in the lost wax (cire perdue) process which is explained in this gallery.

Bigger than life-size, the hands may have been part of a large image of Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha (a superb example of which is shown on the facing page).  In this most common pose he is seated in meditation, one hand in his lap, the other in the gesture of “calling the Earth to witness” by touching her with the tip of the middle finger at the moment of his enlightenment.

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